As we pulled into the parking lot, my friend the food snob took one look at our destination and pulled a face. "You're kidding me, right?" he said, his tone half-condescending, half-panicked. "I know a Perkins when I see one."
"Trust me," was my reply, making a mental note not to verbalize my sudden craving for a Tremendous Twelve breakfast. My credibility didn't improve when he spied the building's other tenant, a Bruegger's Bagels. But once I hustled him through the door, the look of relief on my pal's face was palpable.
That's because from the inside, the Wayzata Eatery & Wine Bar does not appear to be a part of its bland suburban shopping-mall setting. Better still, chef Matt Quist's engaging food is refreshingly low on the formulaic mentality that seems to thrive in the burbs. Over the past few years, personable, food-centric restaurants have become standard operating procedure within the city limits of Minneapolis and St. Paul. But out in McMansionland? Not so much.
An approachable menu
What I enjoy most about Quist's cooking is its integrity, its approachability and its occasional unpredictability. There's a kind of travelogue quality to the menu, but the ideas never seem taken out of context. There are flaky samosas, filled with peas and potatoes and finished with tamarind and mango accents. Sizzling lamb chops are dressed in a traditional Argentinian herb sauce and paired with a fragrant wheat berry-mint salad. Tempura-light fried calamari get a brazen wasabi-laced aioli dipping sauce. Thinly sliced flank steak, marinated in sesame, soy and ginger, is the centerpiece of a refreshing Thai-themed salad. Italy's saltimbocca tradition drops the veal in favor of chicken, and it's delicious: The tasty pan-seared bird is rolled around freshly chopped parsley and rosemary, wrapped in nicely salty dry-cured ham and paired with a hearty romesco sauce. It couldn't be better, and it's just $15.
Quist's best dish is perfect wintertime fare: thick slices of Minnesota-raised pork, marinated in tons of herbs and garlic for a few days before it hits the grill, sharing the plate with a hearty bacon-walnut-Honeycrisp apple hash.
There's a fantastic burger, thick and juicy and popping with a big, beefy flavor. The same goes for a beefy New York strip, gleaming with a shallot-bourbon glaze and paired with hot, crispy fries. Small, succulent mussels are big on flavor. Even an antipasti assortment shows signs of discernment and care: lovely cheeses, candied nuts, pickled vegetables and fine, parchment-thin Spanish ham.
There are moments when I wish Quist would venture just a step or two further. At lunch there's an attractive bowl of fusilli tossed with tender pulled chicken, colorful arugula and a fine aged Parmesan -- so far, so good, right? -- but despite first-rate components it doesn't add up to much. Similarly, for all of its good looks, a narrow rectangle of a ricotta-wild mushroom lasagna is pretty, but also pretty dull.
Then there are times when restraint is needed: Tiny haricot verts and kernels of sweet corn insert color and crunch into a lovingly prepared risotto, and bits of smoky bacon and a mellow mushroom consomme only accentuate its perfection; too bad a clumsy dose of truffle-infused oil overpowered the whole shebang.
I was all over the idea of a short stack of delicate corn cakes, but they seemed buried under clumsy layers of warm mozzarella. Desserts -- heavy on the cream and the chocolate -- are pleasant but not always on par with the kitchen's savory side.
The easygoing lunch menu drops most of dinner's more elaborate entrees in favor of a faster soup-salad-sandwich roster, and it works. Quist's soups feature fresh, bright flavors. Ditto his salads, particularly an eye-catching beet variation. Great sandwiches, too. A profusion of curried egg salad, gently sweet, is stuffed into a swell grilled naan. Avocado and thick-cut bacon are the cornerstones of a two-fisted BLT. Not one but four cheeses (Cheddar, Jarlsberg, manchego and Parmesan) add up to a richly flavorful grilled cheese sammie. Toss in the generous portions and the middle-of-the-road prices and you've got a winning formula.
Recipe for suburban success
The casual, cozy setting (40 seats, tops) quietly radiates a reassuring old-money-on-the-lake sort of vibe, with lots of dark wood, snug booths, marble-topped tables, gorgeous hand-knotted rugs, an eye-catching array of historic Lake Minnetonka posters and a swell 10-seat bar, each stool offering a front-row kitchen seat.
Quist, a Bloomington native, is a Minnesota success story. He's worked in the food business since he was a kid, sweating it out at Byerly's and Leeann Chin. After cooking school he landed a primo job as corporate chef for magnate Curt Carlson and then with food service giant Taher Inc. When owner Bruce Taher decided to dabble in restaurants, he enlisted Quist to run the show.
Smart move, because another aspect of Quist's appeal is his heartfelt hospitality. No matter how hard the kitchen is being slammed, Quist always seems to manage to find a few minutes for some quick dining-room face time, even if it's just a gracious "Thanks for dining with us." I like that. It's the kind of personal touch that reiterates why the Wayzata Eatery is a real place, enthusiastically rooted in its community, and not some skin-deep corporate cutout doing time in a former Perkins.
Rick Nelson • 612-673-4757